Free speech panel explores reach on college campuses

Brooke Sjoberg

The line between hate speech and protected speech often gets blurred, said professors, students and alumni in a panel concerning the reach of free speech on campus.

In the Friday discussion, panelists considered where the University should be drawing the line when it comes to free speech, a question being asked more often due to recent free speech controversies among colleges across the nation.

“Student activism and protests have been an important hallmark of democracy and social justice on U.S. college campuses,” said Kevin Cokley, professor and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis. “However, some argue that recent incidents on college campuses threaten to undermine the legitimate concerns student activists have about certain controversial speakers.”

The panel focused on instances concerning a gray area of free speech on campus regarding students and well-known public speakers. The panel also discussed the 2016 Young Conservatives of Texas’s “affirmative action bake sale” at UT and the controversy surrounding speakers Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer, who have previously voiced racist opinions on college campuses and been met with protests by students.

“I think we can all agree that we need diversity in opinions on college campuses,” said Brianna Davis, educational leadership and policy doctoral student. “The purpose of a higher education is to educate students, teachers, faculty, staff, etc. It gets challenging when you look at the implementation of free speech and where we draw the line … I like to think about the value of speech and who has the power to decide what is and isn’t protected.”

Although the right to free speech cannot be impinged upon by any state entity, H.W. Perry Jr., government and law associate professor, said people tend to have a misunderstanding of how it applies in the context of private individuals.

“The First Amendment doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want and not be held accountable,” Perry said.

Joshua Barham, assistant academic advisor and educational leadership and policy graduate student, said he had noticed the increased discussion of free speech happening around the country in all spaces, motivating him to attend the discussion.

“Free speech is one of the underpinnings of the U.S. in general,” Barham said. “It’s a balance. I really liked thinking about free speech as a scale with free speech on one side and the harm on the other, with the historical perspective that the U.S. has generally pushed a little bit more on the free speech side.”